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The lifespan of successful companies has never been shorter, according to new research conducted by growth strategy consulting firm Innosight. In 1965, the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 was 33 years. By 1990, it was 20 years. By 2026, Innosight predicts it will shrink to just 14 years. If this forecasted churn rate holds, about 50 percent of the S&P 500 will be replaced over the next 10 years.

At the heart of this disruption is digital transformation, which is driving new business models, new revenue streams and new value creation.

At its most basic, digital transformation represents a radical rethinking of how an enterprise uses technology to radically change performance, says George Westerman, principal research scientist with the MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy. The Constellation Research 2017 Digital Transformation Study indicates that 64 percent of organizations recognize digital transformation as essential to driving profits. IDC estimates $1.2 trillion will be spent on digital transformation technologies in 2017, an increase of 17.8 percent over 2016.

Traditional Top-Down Transformation

Traditionally, organizational transformation originates from the top. In fact, Gartner notes that while the idea of shifting toward digital business was speculative for most CEOs a few years ago, it has become a reality for many, with 42 percent of CEOs starting digital transformation initiatives in 2017.

But digital transformation can be different. Today, technology is more accessible to everyone and our workforce is more tech savvy. People already share information through communities of interest, and new apps and productivity tools pop up every day.

Pew Research reported that close to 70 percent of office workers say the internet is important for doing their job, and that 46 percent of adults claim the internet has made them more productive. Individuals introducing technology to improve business is the start of grassroots transformation. This is the democratization of technology.

Although the C-Suite decides business strategy and direction of the organization, it’s important to remember that the power of digital transformation lies in the hands of every user.

Related Article: Goodbye Digital Transformation, Hello Cathedral Thinking

Creating an Environment Conducive to Grassroots Change

survey of 300 companies published by SoftServe indicates how widespread digital transformation initiatives have become, stating that roughly one-fourth of organizations report they have implemented a “transformative” strategy across their entire business. In addition, nearly one-half of those organizations say they have implemented digital transformation across selected parts of their organization.

What’s even more interesting is that more than three-fourths of respondents indicated that when planning a digital transformation strategy, they would look to internal IT or business experts over industry analysts, vendors or media.

“[S]erving the people should not be overlooked as a consideration when it comes to digital transformation,” the report notes. “This touches on why so few businesses are adopting complete digital transformation. The people who are arguably in the best position to drive transformation are not necessarily the people who ultimately benefit.”

A 1990 article in Harvard Business Review reported that grassroots change has a better chance of success — and the same holds true today. Why? Because it’s initiated from deep within the organization, often from managers who are closer to the problem, comfortable with technology, and not afraid of challenging the status quo. And — most importantly — their solutions are usually focused on results.

Initiatives that start out this way are more likely to stick because managers have already bought into the idea. This presents an interesting paradox for management. If grassroots change comes from the bottom-up, then just who is leading whom?

Related Article: A Framework for Digital Transformation Harmony

A Strategic Plan for Grassroots Change

Organizations can’t quash grassroots change if they wish to remain competitive and agile. They should encourage it, quickly recognize when it is happening and shepherd those ideas to align them with corporate objectives. In short, transformative change can be grassroots-led, but must be management-supported.

To increase the velocity of grassroots-driven digital transformation, try the following:

  • Recruit a group of change makers: The Law of Diffusion of Innovation theory discussed in Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With Why,” says that to take a project from an initiative to an unstoppable movement, you must identify the innovators — the first 2.5 percent who are passionate, curious and motivated. Focus on a small group of innovators to drive any type of change.
  • Deliver small wins with big benefits: These initial wins will show the value of transformation to the larger organization, helping grassroots efforts gain steam.
  • Break down walls: Instead of being constrained by existing silos, encourage communication across groups. Cross-functional groups have the added benefit of developing new approaches as different groups collaborate together to create new, more creative solutions.
  • Make technology more accessible: Grassroots solutions may challenge an organization’s existing security policies and overall IT strategy, causing organizational chaos. Don’t forget to develop a standard set of practices to deploy new technology that respects existing policy and procedures without sacrificing agility.
  • Don’t apologize for disruption: Any change effort creates thrash, which is why leading change isn’t for the timid. Go outside of your comfort zone, and encourage your network to do the same.

Digital transformation is more than a buzzword — it’s a holistic approach to organizational change. To make digital transformation work, you need discipline, planning and committed top-down leadership. But perhaps the most important thing you’ll need is a strong grassroots effort. You’ll find that it’s difficult to make your initiative work if transformation is simply mandated from the top down. When ideas originate from the bottom up, they tend to gain more traction, get stronger buy-in and have a better chance of success.